Top critical review
The Eerie World of John Shirley
on September 26, 2002
"Black Butterflies" is a short story collection from horror/science fiction author John Shirley. Shirley, who also wrote the excellent gross out tale "Wetbones," is quite adept at charging his stories with equal parts sex, horror, and suspense. It seems that Shirley spends more time working on science fiction novels, but occasionally, he churns out something like "Black Butterflies." When Shirley delves into horror, look out. He likes to write them lean, mean, and sick as you know what.
"Black Butterflies" is divided into two large sections. The first section is entitled, "This World," probably because the stories deal with everyday reality (I use the term "everyday reality" loosely in reference to some of these stories). The type of stories found in this part of the book varies widely. One story tells the bleak tale of a cop with profound suspicions of his partner. Two tales show the importance of screening people before fooling around with them. Stories about a horror film that is a little too real, an answering machine message one hopes never to hear on their own machine, and the after effects of an earthquake round out the first part of the book.
The second section, entitled, "That World," deals with stories involving supernatural elements. Arguably the best story here is the first one, concerning a little girl and her imaginary friend viewing a side of family life that is both disconcerting and extremely gross. Other stories deal with the end of the world and its aftermath, a sculptor looking for inspiration, an encounter with alien beings who pick up victims in bars, the grim results of mixing [narcotics] with industrial strength insecticide, and a funny story about a battle between good and evil that takes place in a heavy metal/thrash bar.
Again and again, Shirley digs deep into the depths of depravity and despair with this collection of stories. What becomes most apparent as the book unfolds is the intimate knowledge Shirley seems to have with the dark side of human existence. When Shirley writes about the dangers of [narcotics], it seems like he knows about it from first hand experience. There are many authors that festoon their books with endless pages of violence and gore, but few do what Shirley does: create the starkest, grittiest atmospheres in which violence and gore not only unfold, but seem natural to the environment.
One slight problem with the stories in this collection is that many of the stories aren't very original. The horror film story concept has been done, along with the bad relationship/horror story. This tends to blunt some of the book's punch. Shirley certainly has the right to attempt to redo a certain storyline that's been done to death in the past, but more originality in doing so would have elevated this book above the merely average.
... But for a quick dip into this author's eerie work, "Black Butterflies" will certainly do the trick.